Several years ago, immersive experiences showcasing popular artists such as Prince and Vincent van Gogh began popping up around Chicago, putting life back into the streets and filling once-vacant storefronts.
It was unclear whether immersive-style attractions, which allow guests to interact with the exhibits around them, were a passing fad or here to stay.
But most are still going strong, and today they represent one of the brightest spots in the Loop’s retail sector.
The Museum of Illusions Chicago, an interactive exhibit that presents dozens of optical illusions, just signed a deal expanding into a vacant storefront next to its location at 25 E. Washington St. in the Loop.
The expansion takes over space once occupied by a clothing retailer, and will change how the building looks to pedestrians, said Dan Shannon, the property’s asset manager.
“This is the first time in years that we’ve had 100% of our retail space leased,” he said.
Other experiential retail downtown includes Color Factory, an interactive art museum in Willis Tower; Mindworks, a space dedicated to behavioral science opened by The University of Chicago Booth School of Business; the Museum of Ice Cream in the Tribune Tower; and the Medieval Torture Museum at 177 N. State St. next to the Chicago Theatre.
“July and August were our biggest months in terms of attendance,” said Paula Malone, director of the torture museum, which opened in late 2021 and features historical exhibits such as a guillotine that curious visitors can drop on a dummy. “It’s not your standard downtown attraction, but we frequently get an emotional reaction from a lot of people, because they get a hands-on feel of what victims went through.”
But whether venues that provide experiences instead of selling goods or services can fill up the many vacant spaces downtown remains to be seen. The retail sector outside of downtown has made up a lot of ground lost during the pandemic, but the Loop is still missing many of its office workers, even though tourists and neighborhood residents are plentiful, and that’s kept vacancy rates high.
On the bright side, Loop retailers are no longer shrinking, and with foot traffic slowly increasing as more workers return to the office, the next few years may finally see more downtown stores.
“I feel like things have stabilized,” said John Vance, principal at Stone Real Estate Corp., although that’s partly because many property owners are still giving their retail tenants breaks on rent. “Retailers and restaurants are working with landlords to survive this thing and get to the other side.”
“For Rent” signs got plastered all over Loop storefronts in 2020, when the vacancy rate quickly soared from about 14% to more than 26%, but the bleeding stopped by late last year, according to Vance.
“There are not a lot of new deals getting done, but we also aren’t seeing closing after closing after closing,” he said.
The Museum of Illusions’ decision to expand is “wonderful news,” he added, and could help landlords get comfortable with this new type of retail and show it has staying power. “The jury is still out on what experiential retail means for the market, but there has been a bit more acceptance.”
One troubling signal was sent in July when Lighthouse Immersive filed for bankruptcy. The Toronto-based firm is behind Lighthouse ArtSpace Chicago, which opened in 2021 at the Germania Club Building on the Near North Side and presented digital exhibits on artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Frida Kahlo. On Sept. 28, it will open a new exhibit on Claude Monet.
But Shannon is sold on the concept. The museum in his building generates a lot of foot traffic and notice for 25 E. Washington, which also hosts a bank and an exhibition space for the School of the Art Institute on its lower floors.
“The first week they were open, they had a TikTok guy come in and do a video, and it really blew up,” he said. “That’s why we signed a 10-year lease. We don’t see this as a fad.”
The Museum of Illusions first opened in 2020 but soon shuttered by COVID-19, said Rob Cooper, founder and CEO of LOL Entertainment, which operates the museum and several others across the nation. But since reopening in early 2021, about 300,000 visitors have flowed through its 5,000-square-foot space, viewing dozens of optical illusions and learning how the brain processes visual signals.
“People still wanted to spend money and get out,” he said. “We’re just filled to the brim.”
The recovery of Chicago’s tourism industry was key to the museum’s success, he added.
In the first half of 2023, total hotel room demand for Chicago was 4.98 million room nights, 18% more than 2022 and almost 90% of the demand seen over the same period in 2019, according to Choose Chicago, the city’s official tourism agency.
Stacy Stec, director of sales and marketing at LOL Entertainment, said Google’s decision to take over the James R. Thompson Center should give downtown a further boost.
“Companies are investing in the Loop and staying in the Loop,” she said. “We think that’s the smart decision.”
The museum closed temporarily last month after taking over the adjacent 1,600 square feet. It will reopen later this fall after reconstructing the space, adding several dozen more exhibits and boosting its visitor capacity, Cooper said.
The recovery of downtown retail remains uneven, said Steven Bauer, senior managing director of real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. Boutique museums and other East Loop retailers benefit from the tourists visiting Millennium Park, Michigan Avenue and the River North hotels, while the new trophy office towers in Fulton Market and along the Chicago River are relatively successful in attracting office workers back to the West Loop. But retailers serving older Central Loop properties, where fewer workers have returned, are still struggling.
“Once you get east of Wells Street it gets quiet,” Bauer said.
Scott Shapiro, owner of Syd Jerome, a luxury men’s clothing shop in the central Loop, said conditions improve every year, but many potential customers, especially law firm partners and tech workers, are still absent, especially on Mondays and Fridays.
“It’s not awful, but there’s no consistency on who comes downtown and when, and without that consistency, people don’t need the kind of wardrobe they did in the past,” he said.
Office workers are coming back, but it’s happening slowly.
Foot traffic in the Loop was down 22% in August compared to four years ago, an improvement over most of 2023, when traffic was down about 30%, according to Placer.ai, a data analytics firm.
And the average daily visitor count to Class A downtown office buildings was 1,526 this past June, more than 14% higher than June 2022, according to Cushman & Wakefield, but still far below the pre-pandemic average of 2,584.
Bauer said he expects the slow, steady improvement to continue in 2024. He frequently speaks with downtown corporations, and consistently their leaders say they want more people back, even if it’s just for two or three days a week.
“They say, ‘we’re not going to force it, or mandate it,’ but the general feeling is that (the office market) will be stronger.”